By St. George Lane-Fox (1816-1896)
WHEN a man immersed in the darkness of modern civilization awakens, however slightly, to the hollowness of his every-day life, he becomes sensible of a feeling of despair, for he is mentally brought face to face with what appears to him to be a meaningless yet cruel destiny. Now to any one so circumstanced, no truer source of consolation and encouragement can be offered than that which is to be found in a proper consideration of “the ” Four Noble Truths ” of Buddhism. But to give this proper consideration to the Truths, or indeed to promote even a preliminary enquiry into their nature is by no means an easy task, because the fundamental ideas which they embody have scarcely any vitality in the present generation; nay more, they involve for the most part a complete inversion of maxims commonly accepted as axiomatic in current thought.
It is, however, in the hopes of doing something towards the elucidation of the matter, that the present exposition is attempted.
The first Noble Truth relates to human suffering. It proclaims that the conscious, separated, life of individual existence necessarily implies pain, sorrow and misery; that so long as a man feels that he is possessed of an isolated self or so long as he regards himself and his fellow men as detached personalities, having antagonistic or even independent interests, so long must he suffer and be subject to trouble, grief and disappointment.
This first Noble Truth gives utterance to one aspect of an inexorable law of universal application, a law from whose operations no man can, or has, or ever will escape, until he has learnt and in the fullest sense realized the four Noble Truths.
The first Truth may also be thus expressed: individual existence necessitates and involves change of state, whether manifested as birth growth, decay or death, and all changes of state are accompanied by pain in one form or another on some plane of being; while those who seem in their own eyes to have escaped from pain, or those who imagine that others escape from it, are alike deluded, for all men are overtaken by it soon or late.
The second Noble Truth deals with the cause of pain, and partially explains its meaning. According to this Truth, it is the desire or thirst for the continuance of individual life, with its various sensations and experiences, that constitutes the true basis of all suffering, whatever the outward form it may assume, and to whatever plane of consciousness it may belong. This thirst for life, called in the Sanscrit language [Page 50] Tanha, gives rise in the mind of man to a delusive belief in the permanence and reality of that separate personality, which, according to Buddhism, is no more than an ephemeral mode of individual existence; it further leads him to suppose that the numerous mental states which in their aggregate make up the personality, are, in themselves real; and hence grows that rooted belief in the absolute reality of the manifold objects of sense, and that longing for their possession, that insatiable longing for the enhancement and for the multiplication of the experiences associated with these objects.
The second Truth, like the first, presents an aspect of the universal law already referred to.
This law, the Sanscrit name for which is Karma, is the governing and controlling power, ordering all individual existence, and by virtue of which Tanha operates.
The third Noble Truth announces the fact that, as the individual man grows strong in spiritual knowledge and charity, so Tanha is gradually dissolved, and there is for him a consequent cessation of sorrow and of pain. The individuality becoming proportionately freed from the bondage of Karma, Tanha is indeed a quite necessary adjunct of man’s incipient growth, for it represents the creative power which forces the individuality through the earlier stages of its development, yet, while performing this most useful function, being in fact indispensable to the lower nature of man, Tanha, at the same time, forges those Karmic fetters from which the spiritual self struggles desperately to get free.
As the man’s spiritual nature is evolved, the unconscious creative energy, in form of Tanha, is gradually replaced by the newly developed powers of the higher self, the will becomes more and more completely associated with the spirit, while the man himself, endowed with true Faith, true Hope, and true Love, becomes a conscious co-worker with the Universal or Macrocosmic Will, the “Great Builder”.
The fourth Noble Truth assures us that there is a way by which all men may, if they only choose, rapidly accomplish this displacement of Tanha by true Love; this way is called the Noble Eight-fold Path leading to enlightenment.
Thus: — 1). Right fundamental Belief, i.e., the right basis mentally and spiritually upon which to establish true knowledge. 2). Right Intention, i.e. goodwill towards all that lives, singleness of purpose, correctness and purity of motive. 3). Right Speech, i.e., the use of becoming language, kindly temperate, fair and profitable; patient yet vigorous; thoughtful, courageous, honest and discriminating. 4). Right Behaviour i.e., active philanthropy. 5). Right means of Livelihood, i.e., honest and useful employment of one’s time, paying adequate attention to one’s own material needs and helping others to do the same, yet without care or the morrow. 6). Right Endeavour, i.e. putting one’s heart in one’s [Page 51] work. 7). Right Loneliness, i.e., self-contained and harmonious within. 8). Right Meditation. This is the Sanskrit Yoga and signifies union with the divine by practising the contemplation of the reality of being. It is the result of a sustained effort to concentrate the mind upon the universal, eternal and immutable law of life; the first stage of such concentration takes the form of an impartial review or survey of all one’s thoughts, actions, desires, sensations and experiences from a thoroughly impersonal standpoint. This Eightfold Path has four stages representing different degrees of advancement towards Buddhahood or the state of perfect enlightenment. The true Buddha or Tathâgata is one who has attained final emancipation from individual existence, whose purified spirit is freed from the last vestige of Tanha, one upon whom Karma has no more hold, for he has reached Para Nirvana, the Eternal, the Absolute Being.
THE LAST OF A GOOD LAMA. — Whatever may be said against godless Buddhism, its influence, wherever it penetrates, is most beneficent. One finds the Spirit of ” Lord Buddha . . . most pitiful, the Teacher of Nirvana and the Law”, ennobling even the least philosophical of the dissenting sects of his religion — the Lamaism of the nomadic Kalmucks. The Caspian Steppes witnessed, only a few months ago, the solemn cremation and burial of a Mongolian saint, whose ashes were watered by as many Christian as Lamaic tears. The high priest to the Russian Calmucks of the Volga died December 26th, 1886, near Vetlyanka, once the seat of the most terrible epidemics. The Ghelungs had chosen the day of ceremony in accordance with their sacred books; the hour was fixed astrologically, and at noon on January 4th, 1887, the imposing ceremony took place. More than 80,000 people assembling from all the neighbouring Cossack stanitzas and Calmuck ooloosses, formed a procession surrounding the pillar of cremation. The corpse having been fixed in an iron arm-chair, used on such ceremonies, was introduced into the hollow pillar, the flames being fed with supplies of fresh butter. During the whole burning, the crowd never ceased weeping and lamenting, the Russians being most violent in their expressions of sorrow, and with reason. For long years the defunct Lama had been a kind father to all the poor in the country, whether Christian or Lamaist. Whole villages of proletarians had been fed, clothed, and their poll-taxes paid out of his own private income. His property in pasture lands, cattle, and tithes was very large, yet the Lama was ever in want of money. With his death, the poor wretches, who could hardly keep soul in their bodies, have no prospect but starvation. Thus the tears of the Christians were as abundant, if not quite as unselfish, as those of the poor Pagans. Only the year before, the good Lama received 4,000 roubles from a Calmuck oolooss (camp) and gave the whole to rebuild a burned down Russian village, and thus saved hundreds from death by hunger. He was never known during his long life to refuse any man, woman, or child, in need, whether Pagan or Christian, depriving himself of every comfort to help his poorer fellow-creatures. Thus died the last of the Lamas of the priestly hierarchy sent to the Astrakhan Calmucks from beyond the ” Snowy Range” some sixty years ago. A shameful story is told of how a travelling Christian pilgrim imposed on the good Lama. The Lama had entrusted him with 30,000 roubles to be placed in the neighbouring town; but the Christian pilgrim disappeared, and the money with him. [Page 52]